Digging Deeper: Graduate Public History Student Gets Hands-On Lessons in Archeology

By Tom McLaughlin

Samantha Muller vividly remembers the day. In February 2017, the Rutgers University–Camden graduate student was showing some friends around Philadelphia when her phone rang.

Muller says that the Arch Street Project has quite literally been a hands-on experience that she could never replicate in a classroom or library.

On the other end was Kimberlee Moran, an associate teaching professor and director of forensics at Rutgers–Camden, with whom Muller worked closely while earning bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and history at the university.

“She asked me if I’d like to come dig,” recalls Muller, who is now pursuing a master’s degree in public history at her alma mater. “I was only a few blocks away, so I had to check out the site.”

Little could the Pennsauken resident know that Moran was offering her the academic opportunity of a lifetime.

As it turned out, historic human remains were discovered at an Arch Street construction site, which was once home to the First Baptist Church Burial Ground. Remains from the burial ground, established in 1707, were believed to have been exhumed and relocated to “what was then considered the suburbs” at Mount Moriah Cemetery between 1859 and 1860.

Over the past year, the Rutgers­–Camden graduate student has been a part of a team of forensic scientists, historians, students, and volunteers – led by Moran; Anna Dhody, curator of the Mütter Museum; and George Leader, an archeology professor at The College of New Jersey; among others – working in collaboration to document and reinter the remains properly at another location.

“It has been an amazing opportunity to be there when excavations are actually happening, when material cultures are being gathered,” says Muller, who participated in her first dig with Moran at the Whispering Woods excavation site in Pilesgrove in 2013. “When you go into an archive later, you have a real frame of reference to who these people were.”

Like clockwork, the historic remains – now totaling almost 500 – have been taken to a forensic-osteology lab, first located at Rutgers­–Camden and then later in Burlington, where they have been documented, cleaned, and analyzed to determine such matters as the sex, ethnicity, and the age at death.

As they thought their work was winding down, Moran explains, additional burials were discovered at the construction site last summer and the property developer was encouraged to hire an archeology firm to exhume them.

“We were very glad that they did,” says Moran, explaining that a total of 328 burials, packed densely across the entire construction site, were discovered from July to mid-September.

The excavation team then worked in conjunction with the firm over the course of the summer and into the fall semester. As the firm removed materials, Moran says, the team picked them up and transported them to the Burlington forensics lab.

“Just as we were finishing up the coffins from our excavation, new coffins were arriving on a daily basis,” says Moran.

On a snowy day in early January, Muller and Moran gathered with a virtual who’s who of excavation team members past and present at the Burlington facility to open the final coffin and meticulously examine and document the remains.

Prof. Kimberlee Moran has served as one of the leaders of the Arch Street project since remains were discovered at the construction site

Only this coffin was special, as it was the only one to have a name – “Benjamin Britton”- etched on a metal nameplate fastened to the side. The researchers believe that Britton was a baker and a bolter – a miller of flour – but they are still searching for more clues.

For Muller, the chance to “meet” Britton – and other early Philadelphians – has quite literally been a hands-on experience that she could never replicate in a classroom or library.

“I can not only read about Benjamin, but I have actually met him,” she says. “Maybe it’s not when he was alive, but his remains are here and present. Historians often have to use their imaginations, but in this case, I actually get to see what he was physically like.”

Muller adds that the ability to dig as a Rutgers?Camden­ undergraduate and graduate student has offered an unparalleled, multidisciplinary experience, as well as many networking opportunities, working with “the best and brightest in the area.”

“It’s fabulous to be back here and talk with colleagues from so many different universities and organizations,” says Muller, who parlayed her experience and contacts into an internship at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology in summer 2016.

Muller, who serves as vice president of communications for the Rutgers?Camden Alumni Association, notes that even her daughter, Emma Muller, a forensic chemistry major at Rutgers?Camden, has gotten the chance to participate in the project. Emma helped to inventory the coffins.

Inspired by her experiences with the Arch Street project, Muller is currently working on a graduate research paper that will compare and contrast the logistics of the Arch Street excavation with those completed at the National Constitution Center and the President’s House in Philadelphia.

“I want to see how these excavations came about, what factors affected them, and how they were completed,” she says. “Ultimately, I want to ask what happens in Philadelphia when you find these types of sites, and who has the jurisdiction and responsibility of taking care of remains like this.”

Furthermore, says Muller, her experience on the project has fueled her passion for social justice and led her to concentrate on a career in public history.

“I am interested in seeing how laws can change in Philadelphia should these types of situations arise again,” says Muller, a former member of the Pennsauken Board of Education. “I am someone who doesn’t mind getting their hands dirty and trying to make a difference, and a public history degree at Rutgers?Camden will afford me that opportunity.”

 

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